Economic Cycles

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Separate School and State

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Sometimes critical thinking about a certain institution is muddied or difficult because the institution is so ingrained in our culture. The institution enjoys massive support by elites and the common man. I imagine contemplating a world without slavery in the 19th century would be a good example of this. At the time, virtually every country on the planet had slavery and a well-functioning, well-oiled slave trade in place. Slavery enjoyed both the practical arguments of the day and many moral ones. The abolitionists who called for the end of slavery were largely mocked and portrayed as impractical – or worse – as insane. It was nigh impossible for the average person to imagine a world without the incredibly immoral institution of slavery.

I believe this is how many view a debate about the public school system today. The real reasons behind the start of the public school system have been forgotten. What exists now is a highly benevolent narrative about poor people needing a good education and of course, education’s large positive externalities. Whatever moral and practical reasons people may give to justify public education, they don’t address how schools collect money, how they administer education, nor do they address the incentives the institution produces (exogenous effects) and suffers from (endogenous effects). At best we kind of all agree on public schooling’s awful outcomes. Further, the idea that education in general is the same idea as the specific institution of public education as it exists today is pervasive – and flat wrong. It is in blurring those two distinct concepts that leads people to vilify those who criticize the public school system as wanting to end education in general.

No. Ending public education doesn’t end education any more than ending public transportation would end transportation.

This is why a good analogy can be such a great thought experiment. This classic “grocery school” analogy was written by Don Boudreux, the former Chair of the George Mason University Economics Department. The analogy is crucial to thinking clearly about the public school system because it addresses the specific institution of public schooling – not education in general.

***Addendum*** This story does a good job in refuting the idea that we have public school to educate poor children. And this particular incident comes on the heels of the recent story about the poor woman convicted of a felony for registering her two daughters to a relative’s address so that they could go to a better school than the poverty stricken one they were forced to go to.


Written by jlongo12

April 25, 2011 at 11:37 am

Posted in libertarianism

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